I don't know that I can recall in my life as an educated basketball fan — which goes back roughly to the year before Yao Ming was drafted — in which the Rockets ever faced a potential franchise turning one quite like the one they have in front of them.
For years, this team always seemed like it was in flux. They were bad enough to draft Steve Francis and Yao with their own lottery picks — and lucky enough to get them — and the Francis-McGrady trade shifted the balance of the franchise, but before that deal happened, did it feel like the Rockets faced a fork in the road? It was years ago, but the deal was more taking an opportunity when the league's back-to-back scoring champ wanted out of Orlando.
The deal created a new era, sure, one that had some highs and maybe the most depressing denouement of a team with two Hall-of-Famers than any in NBA history. But we didn't know a new era was about to begin before it happened.
Ditto the James Harden trade. The Rockets had been plodding along with young guys and B-list pieces, held together by Shane Battier and Luis Scola, and we knew, at some point, Daryl Morey would do something with all the assets he was going to stockpile. But we didn't know what, and we didn't know when, until it happened.
There have been other moments: nearly trading for Pau Gasol before David Stern and "basketball reasons" happened. Nearly signing Chris Bosh to pair with Dwight Howard and James Harden. Those were big. But they were tilting moves: this team is good, this move will make it better.
The Rockets were not good last year. Just because they managed to make the playoffs doesn't discount the reality that they were 41-41 and were one of the most dysfunctional, unpleasant teams on the court in the league. Most NBA watchers would have chosen Timberwolves games, a far worse team but in a different head space, over watching Harden and Howard.
This is not a matter of "how good will the Rockets be next season?" question. This is now a much more fearsome proposition: "Will the Rockets be good next season?"
The certainly can be. James Harden is a superstar, Houston has no state sales tax and a solid climate (better than 80% of the Eastern Conference, anyway) and the franchise has a stable foundation. If the Rockets offer a free agent the same deal as the Mavericks, chances are a player is going to choose Houston this summer.
But a third of the team could be different, maybe more. There are reasons to believe that none of Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Dwight Howard, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Jason Terry will be back last year. That's a combined 7,219 of minutes, 36 percent of the team's total.
If the Rockets swing and miss on every major free agent — if they sign none of Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, Hassan Whiteside or Al Horford — this team could theoretically get worse. They could sign a combination of second-tier guys like Nicolas Batum (who I would love), Ryan Anderson (long coveted by many a Rockets fan) and Kent Bazemore and field a pretty solid team to compete.
But Daryl Morey could instead sign players who would seem not to fit with the way the team would play at its best: accurate, volume shooting, playmaking from the perimeter and (save for Anderson) defense. Or he could orchestrate a trade. There are lots of avenues for the Rockets to become a much improved team.
There's also the darker timeline, one in which basically this happens:
(You should watch that above video for two reasons: one, because it's among the greatest two minutes of TV in the last decade, and two, because nothing in the two paragraphs after this will make sense.)
In this scenario, the wheels have already been put in motion. James Harden's defense was Pierce's comment about Jeff's dad, prompting him to hit his head. Dwight Howard's descent into mediocrity is the ball rolling across the floor, ready to trip the Rockets up at the perfect moment of volatility.
J.B. Bickerstaff's coaching was like Annie's gun: sure, it was good to have in the purse when you don't have to use it, but once you give it a job to do, it's going to shoot someone in the leg. Jason Terry is the bottle of whiskey on the floor, waiting to do something crazy like break or interview for a coaching job in Alabama midseason. Corey Brewer's season, one could argue, it's Britta's cigarette: everything else is awful already, but when it lights on fire, it's the first thing you notice when you walk into the apartment/watch the game.
In the darkest timeline, the apartment burns down. Morey and Les Alexander hire Kenny Smith. Dwight Howard opts in because his agent realizes there's no way he gets close to $23 million next year. James Harden shows up out of shape, again. There are no takers for Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza on the trade market, and in desperation, Morey gives up picks to unload them and start anew. He throws money at Rajon Rondo and Evan Turner.
For what it's worth, I don't think we get there. If I did, I'd be one of the fatalist Rockets fans calling for Daryl Morey's dismissal. At the same time, I think going down the toilet next year and missing the playoffs is entirely likely with a few wrong moves.